Oct 16, 2021 Last Updated 1:13 AM, Oct 14, 2021

The isolation poems by Putu Oka Sukanta

Published: Oct 09, 2021

Putu Oka Sukanta, poet and writer, was imprisoned by the Indonesian New Order regime between 1966 to 1976 as part of the army’s seizure of power and the purges of the Left. He learnt acupuncture from fellow inmates in prison. When he was released, he could no longer publish his work. As a former political prisoner during the New Order, he was restricted in what he could do. Acupuncture became a skill he relied on to make a living.

These poems were written during the Covid-19 pandemic when in the absence of vaccines and growing number of people becoming infected and dying in Indonesia, one of the easiest ways to protect oneself was to stay home and avoid contact with others. The themes of fear, dread, isolation, and desperate longing are reflected in the poems below. The poems were all written in his home in Rawamangun, Jakarta.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sukanta laid low to avoid becoming infected with the virus. He closed his home practice, and as a result, lost his source of income. Though he was not in prison this time, being in isolation, at times, reminded him of it.

Poster GELISAH

Kutempel GELISAH
di kaca jendela
orang lewat di depan rumah
sejenak berhenti, mangguk mangguk
Ooo sampai kapan?

Sudah setahun lebih
poster kecil itu tetap nempel
di kaca jendela, mulai berdebu tapi jelas,
GELISAH
orang orang lewat di depan rumah
atau bertanya lewat angkasa
"Sampai kapan itu Gelisah?"

Semoga jawabanku didengar
"Tanya tu si Corona."
Poster GELISAH itu, telah berubah jadi
TUTUP.*

R’mangun 30/05/21

The UNEASY poster

I paste UNEASY
to the windowpane
people pass by the house
pause a moment, nodding
Oh, how long will it last?

Been over a year
That little poster still stuck
to the window, a little dusty now but clear
UNEASY
people pass by the house
or ask across the sky
“This UNEASY, how long will it go on?”

I hope they hear my answer
“Go ask Corona.”
That UNEASY poster, has now turned into
CLOSED.

(translator Kiernan Box)


As his world shrank, the pleasures of life grew simpler. Together with the anxiety from the pandemic, old age is catching up with Sukanta, ‘My head is still on fire, but the body not so much’. In the mornings, a quick routine check assures him that he is still alive, reason enough to be happy.

BAHAGIA

1.

aku sangat bahagia pagi ini,
betapa tidak bahagia,
bangun pagi tanpa batuk,
napas lega, seperti batang seruling lepas melantunkan suara,

matahari masih berselimut mendung,
gelap abu-abu, pepohonan menarikan goyangan gerimis

aku masih berbaring
memainkan napas, apakah ada suara 'mengi', lendir di tenggorokan,
tanpa berisik,
sepi

betapa aku tidak bahagia,
bangun tidur mata terang berkedap kedip,
mendaratkan kesadaran sampai penuh,
kemudian mengangkat tubuh,
menggayutkan kaki di bibir dipan,
lega, tak terasa sakit di lutut, maupun pegal di otot betis.

betapa bahagia aku, bukankah begitu sobat?

sebab lidah lincah dijulur tarikkan sampai sepuluh kali,
lantas dilekak lekukkan ke kanan ke kiri,
ditekuk ke langit langit mulut,
lega bebas seperti bocah ngeledek lawannya.

begitulah sederhananya

HAPPY

1.

I’m so happy this morning,
how could I not be,
waking up without coughing,
breathing easy, like a flute freely sounding a note, 

the sun still shrouded by cloud,
a grey dark, the trees dancing to the sway of soft rain 

I’m still lying down
testing my breath, is there a wheezing sound, mucus in my throat,
no sound,
quiet

how could I not be happy,
waking up, eyes bright and blinking,
rousing my consciousness fully,
then I raise my body,
and hang my legs over the side of the bed
ah relief, no pain in my knees, no aches in my calf muscles.

how happy I am, isn’t that the way, friends?

because pushing my tongue in and out, ten times
then folding it right and left 
pressing it against my palate,
light and easy, the way children tease each other.

that’s how simple it is.

(translator Vannessa Hearman)


Being an acupuncturist and herbalist and given his age of 82 years, he was very conscious of the need to protect one’s immune system, given the lack of vaccines at the start of the pandemic. In this poem, he reflects on the virus as a silent killer, and how to stay healthy in Indonesia, with its struggling health system, ‘What we eat and drink, also our thoughts, and activities that generate a sense of wellbeing, are all important.’

Ia.

dalam perkerumunan, Ia
dalam berdesakan, Ia
dalam kelembaban suram, Ia
menyelusup
tanpa riuh, membuat gaduh
bahkan membunuh.

kita tak mengenali wujudnya
Ia paham benar kita,
lintasan energi dan mesin kehidupan kita,
Ia cepat bersarang, dahsyat menyerang

aku berlindung pada Dewa Surya,
sari buah dan sayuran,
aku menempa otot dan napas
dalam Kasih Semesta.*

akhir juni 2020.

It.

in crowds,
in the push and shove,
in the gloomy humidity, it
sneaks in
without a sound, it creates an uproar
it even kills.

we don’t recognise its form
but it knows us so well,
the trajectory of our energy and the force of our life
it quickly infiltrates, and attacks fiercely

I seek the protection of the Sun God,
Fruit and vegetable juices
I hone my muscles and my breathing
In the loving embrace of the Universe.

end of June 2020.

(translator Vannessa Hearman)

 

Bare tree / Eleanor Sumner CC Flickr

As the days and nights grew longer, and dreary, Sukanta writes about the tree that needs to shed its leaves to survive a European winter or a bad drought. ‘Being still (diam) is not the same as dying. Being still is also a form of resistance, a way to survive, to live again. Some people are stubborn, refuse to wear a mask and to believe that COVID exists, but whoever can hold on can survive.’

Refleksi akhir 2020

bagai sebatang pohon sendiri
meligirkan diri
angin menderu mengundang menari
diantara bulu salju

sebatang pohon meligirkan diri
melawan mati

seolah rangka larut membeku
menghemat dan menyimpan energi
melintasi badai
menunggu musim semi
lahir kembali

aku bagai sebatang pohon
tidak sendiri
berguru pada sepi
menanti musim semi*

Rwmangun, 30-12-2020

Reflection at the end of 2020

Like a tree all alone
Shedding its leaves
When a howling wind calls on it to dance
In showers of powdery snow

A tree sheds its leaves
In a fight for survival

As if its whole skeleton has frozen
Conserving and storing energy
Passing through a storm
Waiting for spring
To be born again

I’m like a tree
not the only one
to learn from the silence
waiting for spring

(translator Vannessa Hearman)


Sukanta used to write whenever something appears in his mind. ‘Even at 2 in the morning, if I feel something, I write it down. So, it doesn’t disappear. This is something I started doing in prison. I write with the clouds, with the sun’s rays,’ he explains. But, in isolation, Sukanta’s mind grew restless, skittering from place to place, anticipating the day to come; yet he found that isolation sometimes blunted the imagination, so now he writes more with the flow.

Puisi menjelang malam

Rintik rintik
Kata-kata saling melirik
Liar mengganggu kantuk
Sepi,
orang bersembunyi di rumahnya
Sendiri, sendiri.

Rancangan mengisi esok pagi,
Bolak balik ke kanan ke kiri
Langkah malam tanpa henti

Menjelang malam
Puisi kehabisan mimpi*

R.mangun, 30.04021

A poem as night approaches

Pitter patter, drizzle
Words glance sideways at each other
Shake me roughly awake
Quiet,
People hide in their houses
Alone, alone

Plans to occupy tomorrow,
Back and forth right to left
The night paces on without pause

As night approaches
A poem bereft of dreams

(translator Kiernan Box)

/ ILO/F. Latief CC Flickr


Even the night refuses to cooperate and to provide him with the inspiration he needs to write poems. ‘The night is no longer kind,’ he says, ‘the night too is restless.’

Malam. 3

sekarang malam menjadi jauh, sesekali saja melambaikan tangan,
tanpa berseru,
tanpa membisikkan sesuatu
seperti dulu-dulu.

sekarang malam mengasingkan diri.

rwmangun, 23/9/20

Night. 3

now night has grown distant, only occasionally waving,
without calling out
without whispering anything
like it used to.

now night turns away.

(translator Vannessa Hearman)

 
Several poems deal with memories of friendship, recounting shared activities with friends, put on hold for a time.

Jalan kaki

yuni ayuk jalan kaki,
menyelingi diskusi
langit masih semburat jingga,
jangan terlambat, dilangkahi surya

yuni, semalam diskusi apa?
sampai lupa memejamkan mata,
soal klasik dunia
tak pernah sudah:
penjualan anak dan perempuan,
pengucilan dan penistaan,
kebangkitan "hantu"

di kepala mereka saja

yuni, ayunkan kaki
lenturkan urat nadi,
pulang berlari
merebus ubi
pesanan suami*.

R’mangun,30.01.21

Walking

yuni let’s take a walk
in amongst all our talking
the sky still orange-tinged,
don’t be late, leapfrogged by the sun

yuni, what did we talk about last night?
until we forgot to close our eyes,
classic world problems
never ending:
trafficking children and women
banishment and slander
resurrected “ghosts”

only in their heads

yuni, swing your legs now
get the blood flowing
run home
and boil some sweet potatoes
just as your husband asked.

(translator Kiernan Box)


Ultimately, he hopes that one day the doors will open, and friends can greet one another again. Sukanta explains what life has taught him, ‘Strength is built on friendship and solidarity, not isolation.’

Aku Berharap

aku berharap
mendengar ketok ketok di pintu
yang kututup selalu
walau tidak dikunci baku

aku berharap
melihat bayangan
timbul lenyap di kaca jendela, cuma
hanya deru angin
menyambut gerimis dingin

aku berharap
mendengar ketok ketok di pintu,
kalau tidak, cukup bayangan melintas
di kaca jendela
agar aku bisa bercerita
rasa bahagia, kangen kamu*

Rmangun,17.05.20

I hope

I hope
to hear knocking at the door
that I have kept closed,
though not completely locked

I hope
to see shadows
come and go in the window, but
only the roar of the wind
greets the cold drizzle

I hope
to hear knocking at the door, or
if not, just a shadow passing by
in the window
so that I can speak
of my happiness, of how much I miss you.

(translator Vannessa Hearman)

 
Vannessa Hearman (vannessa.hearman@curtin.edu.au) is senior lecturer in History at Curtin University and a nationally accredited translator (Indonesian into English). Kiernan Box (kiernanbox@gmail.com) is a Melbourne-based student of Indonesian language and literature. The translators gratefully acknowledge Keith Foulcher for his feedback.

Inside Indonesia 145: Jul-Sept 2021

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